Did Russian pranksters really spray-paint a polar bear with the name of a Russian tank?

Screengrab of the video showing a polar bear with 'T-34' marked on its side.
Screengrab of the video showing a polar bear with 'T-34' marked on its side.

When a Russian video appeared online showing a polar bear with "T-34" spray-painted on its side, many animal lovers around the globe responded with shock and horror, hypothesizing that it had fallen victim to some kind of bad joke or act of revenge by local people. Turns out, that’s far from the truth.

The video shows a polar bear walking across a snowy landscape not far from the car where the man filming the video is perched.

"Why is it so dirty?" asks one of the passengers.

"Is it a spotted bear?" asks another.

If you look, you can clearly see that "T-34", the name of a famous Russian-made tank, has been spray-painted on the animal’s side.

"Why [do something like that]? He won’t be able to hunt without being seen," wrote Sergey Kavry, who works for the World Wildlife Foundation in Vankarema in Tchoukotka (far northeastern Russia), when he posted this video. In a Facebook post that he has since deleted, Kavry says that he stumbled across the video in a WhatsApp group used by people in the indigenous community in Tchoukotka.

"I don’t know in what region, district or locality this video was filmed […]. If it refers to military equipment, then it shows an extreme lack of respect for history," he wrote, before adding that scientists shouldn’t have "marked" the bear in this way.

Other theories

When the video was posted online, other advocates for animal protection in Russia also spoke out, some with different theories about how the bear might have acquired such a marking. The spokesperson for the WWF Russia, Daria Buyanova, told the BBC that she was extremely shocked by these images and that the writing looked like some kind of "bad joke".

Scientist Anatoly Kochnev from the Institute for Biological Problems of the North, Russian Academy of Sciences, told Russian press agency RIA Novosti that the incident might be tied to growing frustration with bears amongst residents of Novaya Zemlya [Editor’s note: an archipelago in the north of Russia], where many of these animals come to find food.

"It’s possible that they [the residents] took certain measures this winter, such as capture and sedation. Scientists clearly didn’t do that, so it must have been some delinquents [who spray-painted the bear]."

Kochnev then posted a video on his YouTube channel explaining that this kind of spray-paint likely wouldn’t put the bear’s life in danger in an attempt to calm people down. He explained that polar bears often get dirty while eating but then they go and wash themselves. Their coats turn white and clean again and they can blend in when they go hunting on the ice.

…all false

However, it turns out that none of these hypotheses are true. The France 24 Observers team reached out to the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Academy of Sciences, based in Moscow.

Dr. Sergey Naidenko, the deputy director of the Institute, explained to our team what really happened to this bear.

'This bear was eating out of trash cans before it was captured by our scientists'

This bear isn’t a victim of a bad joke. It was simply sedated and then marked by scientists from our Institute. They are studying the polar bears who live close to Novaya Zemlya and who scavenge and dig through bins and end up eating all kinds of things that are bad for them.

We sedate these bears so that we can take samples and study their health. Then, we put GPS collars on the females so that we can track their movements. We can’t put these collars on the males because their necks are too big. So, instead, we mark them with a special kind of paint that has no negative effects on them and that disappears within 10 to 15 days. We mark them so that we don’t end up catching the same bear twice a few days apart.

'T-34' is not a reference to a Russian army tank

The bear that you see in the video was eating from trash cans before he was spotted and captured by our scientists. The name that we gave him, "T-34", doesn’t have anything to do with Russian tanks. As part of our method, we’ve mapped several points representing different geolocations around Novaya Zemlya. Point is "tochka" in Russian.

So the letter T stands for "tochka" or point. The number refers to the exact location on the map. Each of the male bears that we capture and mark gets a similar name, such as T-27, T-31 or T-34.

So what happened to this bear isn’t some kind of bad joke or revenge on the part of locals. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it.

The video is from last year

I’m not sure about the bear’s current state of health because this video was probably filmed in early summer 2019, in the days after this bear was marked. In the video, it’s daytime and the sky is full of light. If the video had been filmed recently then the sky would have been a lot darker because we are in the middle of the Polar Night in Novaya Zemlya [Editor’s note: the period from around November to January where the sun doesn’t really rise]. So the paint has been gone from his fur for several months now.

Polar bears on the frontlines of climate breakdown

"Like its fellow bears in Greenland, Canada and the rest of the region, these polar bears are on the frontlines of climate breakdown. In the spring and summertime, the ice is melting much earlier and faster than before. Many of these bears get trapped on dry land, far from the seals that are the staple of their diet. Very quickly, they start showing up in landfills scavenging for food. When that runs out, the males often turn to cannibalism, killing babies or weaker females. But when winter returns, they can often get back out on the ice and return to their natural habitat.

Last February, more and more starving bears started turning up on the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya. They joined forces and would come looking for food together in buildings and landfills. Local authorities declared a state of emergency in an attempt to get the situation under control.

A few months later, in June, one bear scavenging for food got very close to humans in Norilsk, located 1,170 kilometres southeast of the capital.

Video - 'Something is not right with nature': Starving polar bear wanders into Siberian town